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Are Painkillers Killing America?

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Pharmacist Pouring Pain Medication

For thousands of Americans, prescription painkiller addictions begin as innocently as possible. Sometimes it starts with back pain from a car accident, ankle pain after a basketball game or lingering pain following surgery.

After a quick visit to the doctor or the emergency room, patients walk out with more than an analgesic prescription. They’re the unwitting recipients of painkiller addictions.

Nearly 15,000 Americans die every year from painkiller overdoses, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Every day, almost 5,500 people misuse prescription painkillers.

It Takes All Kinds

Overdoses from opioid prescription drugs like Percocet and OxyContin kill more people than heroin and cocaine overdoses combined, according to the CDC.  The most abused are opioids, which includes hydrocodone (Vicodin), benzodiazepines (Xanax and Valium) and amphetamine-like drugs (Adderall and Ritalin).

Adding to the problem are rogue doctors – those who give out the drugs like candy or those not educated enough to find safer alternatives for their patients.

“Writing a prescription for a pain killer may be the path of least resistance; doing so may satisfy the patient’s demand for relief and mitigate the clinician’s possible feelings of inadequacy,” said Dr. Spencer D. Dorn, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina and lead author of the study that looked into opioid-prescription abuse.

Starting Small

For a majority of painkiller addicts, the habit starts unwittingly. That’s what happened to Marissa Curry of Florida. Her mother told the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times that Marissa started abusing prescription drugs after a car accident in 2000. That led to heroin abuse, overdoses, arrests and jail time.

After a stint in a treatment facility and a bout with sobriety, she had another car accident. That led to more neck and back pain, thus another prescription.

This time, the doctor wrote her a prescription for Lortab. Her family found the 24-year-old dead in a hotel bed. They think she took some of the Lortab and sold the rest for heroin.

Slow Breathing

Prescription pain pills are so effective because they work by binding to receptors in the brain and decrease the perception of pain. Basically, they get in between nerve cells so the pain message can’t be passed back and forth.

This type of pain management is more effective than over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen, which blocks prostaglandin, a chemical that carries pain signals through the body. Prescription pain drugs create a euphoric feeling, but also cause sedation and decreased breathing.

People abusing these drugs need to take increased amounts over time to get the same effect. The higher doses can depress breathing so much that it stops completely.

Not Where You Think

Probably one of the more shocking facts about painkiller addictions is that it’s an equal opportunity killer. Overdose rates are skyrocketing across the country, with more rural states like New Mexico and West Virginia leading the country in overdose deaths. It’s mostly killing middle-aged men who live in rural counties. Nearly half a million emergency room visits in 2009 were from people abusing painkillers, the CDC said.

The CDC also said prescription drug abuse is a gateway to using street drugs. Many addicts report feeling that prescription drugs have a perception of being “cleaner” than street drugs like crack or heroin.

Instead of getting drugs from shady dealers, they’re getting them from their family doctors and pharmacies. But even with that, eventually prescriptions run dry and the addicts need to get their fixes wherever they can. Often, they resort to street drugs.

Slowly Putting on the Brakes

Although officials have been slow to recognize the growing painkiller problems, they’re finally realizing that it’s reached epidemic proportions. Across the nation, states have been enacting more stringent laws limiting access to the pills.

Florida in 2011 started cracking down by requiring pain clinics to register with the state and putting a prescription painkiller database in place. This put the brakes on the pipeline that made prescriptions easy pickings from Florida into Kentucky and other nearby states.

Doctors are also being held accountable for handing out unnecessary prescriptions and killing patients. A doctor in Chicago, Illinois, who doled out OxyContin in his Ohio pain clinics was found guilty in 2011 of four counts of distribution resulting in death, among other things. Prosecutors said Dr. Paul Volkman prescribed millions of pills over a several year period, resulting in dozens of deaths. He’s facing up to 20 years in prison.

Another doctor, Julio Diaz of California, was known to his patients as “the candy man . . . because they knew he was the man to go to for drugs,” the Los Angeles Times reported. Although not initially charged in connection with overdose deaths, Diaz is facing federal drug trafficking charges.

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